Page last updated at 16:11 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Solicitors 'misled' sick miners

Jim Beresford
Mr Beresford earned almost 17m in 2006

Two solicitors who won personal injury claims for thousands of miners have appeared before a tribunal accused of taking cuts from compensation pay-outs.

Jim Beresford, 58, and Douglas Smith, 51, from Beresfords Solicitors in Doncaster, denied 11 allegations of misconduct at the hearing in London.

The men earned millions of pounds from claims made under the government's coal health compensation scheme.

Timothy Dutton QC said they had failed to act in the interests of clients.

The tribunal was told about 80% of the firm's profits came from the claims.

We say that the breaches were serious enough to constitute conduct unbefitting of a solicitor
Timonthy Dutton QC

Mr Dutton appearing for the Solicitors' Regulatory Authority (SRA) said they had not given adequate advice and had entered into conditional and contingency fee agreements against their clients' best interests.

He added: "We say that the breaches were serious enough to constitute conduct unbefitting of a solicitor."

The court heard that Beresfords "expanded remarkably with the advent of coal claims".

Quadruple profits

The company's gross profit more than quadrupled from 8,758,743 in 2004, to 36,205,805 in 2006.

The court also heard the men's own earnings went from more than 182,000 in 2000 to 23,273,256 in 2006.

In addition, Beresfords expanded from 10 employees in 1998 to 244 employees in 2004.

The firm acted in more than 83,000 cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and more than 145,000 cases of vibration white finger (VWF).

The court was told under government procedures, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) agreed to pay lawyers' fees in successful cases.

Mr Dutton said it was not prohibited for law firms to charge other fees, but added: "We will be submitting that the charging of conditional fees, over and above those set out in the scheme, or contingency fees, was unacceptable."

Misleading impression

Mr Dutton gave the example of client Rodney Bochenski who had a claim against British Coal after he suffered from VWF.

He entered into a contingency fee agreement with Beresfords, which meant if he won his claim, the law firm would receive 25% of the damages.

Mr Dutton said: "The combination of not putting in writing to Mr Bochenski the fact that the DTI would be paying these costs and not making it clear what these costs were gives a misleading impression to the client."

Of the 18,517.81 of damages won by Beresfords, 4,795.92 were deducted by the firm. This was on top of the fees received from the DTI.

The court heard that in late 2003, Beresfords received a "stream" of complaints or queries in relation to claims.

Mr Dutton said it was the respondent's case that Beresfords stopped undertaking contingency fee claims in 2000.

But Mr Dutton said they were continuing to enforce success fee arrangements until July 2003 and they were only refunded after a complaint.

The court was told, in December that year, Nigel Griffiths, parliamentary undersecretary for Coal Health, wrote to the law firm to say the Prime Minister had expressed concern over the "apparent double payment" of fees to some solicitors.

Mr Dutton said the response, a letter written by Mr Smith, was "misleading" in various ways.

The case continues.

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